An incredible second half performance by substitute Mario Mandžukić saw ten man Wolfsburg defeat Kaiserslautern. Sotirios Kyrgiakos’ sending off at the end of an invention-free, chance-light and dire first half made the visitors favourites to snatch all three points in the second half, especially as Marco Kurz’s strikers showed much better movement in the opening 45 minutes than their Wolfsburg counterparts. But, Felix Magath’s inspired decision to unleash the Croatian from the bench changed the game, although it was Ashkan Dejagah who bagged the goal which lifts Wolfsburg up to 12th in the Bundesliga.
An open start to the match saw some nice football being played, with both sides looking to spread the ball about among the outfield players at a good tempo, before releasing either a full-back or forward on a dart into the final-third. The visitors barely pressed Wolfsburg when the centre-backs had the ball, instead content to sit off in their high and compact 4-4-2. This tactic frustrated the hosts in their attempts to make attacks, and resulted in Patrick Helmes and Srđan Lakić playing too far apart from one another in the opening five minutes.
When the home side did manage to play a ball into the final-third and then keep it there with the next pass, they pushed as many outfield players into and around the Kaiserslautern box as was possible. Josué was key to this, as rather than hang about in his usual deep position, he bobbed in the shadow of the box or on the D – looking to make through-balls, or play the releasing pass in a one-two move. With Kaiserslautern not breaking dangerously at pace, Wolfsburg were able to get away with committing so many players forward in the opening ten minutes, although they weren’t able to test goalkeeper Kevin Trapp, primarily because the crosses or squares into the box were poor.
In fact, the first real chance of note fell to Kaiserslautern’s Dorge Kouemaha, who fluffed his lines after receiving a pull-back on the D. The opportunity had been created by the visitors after Wolfsburg tried to play an offside trap ten metres before the halfway line, focusing fully on the fact that Clemens Walch was retreating, but failing to notice that the scoop over the top was played to Itay Shechter’s dart from deep.
However, Marco Kurz’s side were finding it difficult to instigate attacks from their own restarts, because Wolfsburg were also content to sit off when the opposition started short. And, with the identical 4-4-2 formations meaning that space was at a premium, Rodnei and Martin Amedick just didn’t know how to splice the hosts’ forward line, let alone the midfield or rearguard. Kaiserslautern were a bit less willing than Wolfsburg to stand their full-backs high up the pitch in possession too, which meant that really, they were better off letting Felix Magath’s side have the ball and looking to hit them on the counter-attack.
The hosts weren’t exactly bursting at the seams with invention themselves, but they had one tactic they seemed to prefer most, and occasionally deployed it well. It involved a centre-midfielder or striker going across and making it a three on two situation on the flank, with the full-back then always the man released either on the overlap or into the box with the through-ball. But, 20 minutes into the game, the men in green had still to play a square from within the box that beat the first man, so Trapp remained untested.
Kurz also had one tactic that he prioritised over all others, and that was quick and long balls into the channels for one of the two high-standing forwards to chase. By and large, though, the Red Devils weren’t able to take advantage of the space, with Alexander Madlung and Kyrgiakos sticking close to their man and corking the run.
A passage of play between the 25th and 30th minute epitomised why both these sides are struggling, as the ten outfield players on either side took turns at holding possession through a long series of overly-cautious and simple passes, before finally making a marginally-positive one which resulted in a turnover thanks to a poor control, weak execution or moment of panic. No one was taking this game by the scruff of the neck, and both sides looked content to let a first half stalemate ensue.
Although Ashkan Dejagah looked hungry and showed one or two moments of quality to open Kaiserslautern up, Rasmus Jönsson was a total passenger out on the other flank. Helmes and Lakić, meanwhile, were starved of service, but neither seemed to mind that too much. Magath had, at least, instructed his players to start pressing higher up the pitch now; the former Schalke tactician positioning a narrow bank of five players in a trapezium shape that started five metres before the halfway line and ended ten metres after it. The ball-holder or man in red dropping to get it would then be sprint-pressed by one of these five Wolfsburg players as Magath sought to keep Kaiserslautern going backwards or sideways.
As we approached the final ten minutes of the half, the hosts had finally begun to start testing Trapp. Christian Träsch, who’d done a lot of running deep in the midfield, had one effort that went over and another that was well saved and held by the visiting ‘keeper. But, as a deflected Marcel Schäfer cross highlighted in the 34th minute, Trapp was also capable of the nervy and daft (something we’d seen in the 15th minute when he came for and missed a harmless cross). Luckily for the visitors, the 21-year-old just about managed to adjust his feet in time to stop the cross from sneaking in at his near post.
Nevertheless, it was the away side who were still seeing more of the ball, although even on the rare occasions when they did play in one of their strikers in the final-third, they just didn’t have the quality to punish Wolfsburg. Take a Kouemaha dart into the channel and hold in the 37th minute, for instance. The striker evaded his tracker, and then did well to spin and lay on the incoming Christian Tiffert. The left-sided midfielder, considered enough of a dangerman to attract a swarm of green-shirted players every time he got on the ball, squared to the in-space Athanasios Petsos, but by the time the Greek midfielder had trapped and decided what to do with the ball, the opportunity to play a killer pass in the gap left by the covering defensive-midfielders or shoot was gone.
Still, Kurz’s forwards were always running willingly, and a clever effort in the 41st minute saw both run into the left channel for the same scoop. The move seemed planned rather than an error, because Shechter took possession, allowed Kouemaha to take it off him, and then made a run into the exact bit of space where his striking colleague played a return pass into. The Israeli attacker, however, attempted a squared ball across the empty box (Kyrgiakos was in Shechter’s wake, with Madlung dragged out by Kouemaha), but no attacking midfielder was there to pass the inviting ball in.
Referee Thorsten Kinhöfer dragged the game out of its malaise in first half injury time, when he showed a surprise red card to Kyrgiakos for a tug on Shechter. A hopeful/hopeless punt upfield by Amedick resulted in the duel between the pair on the edge of the box, and although the former Liverpool defender did pull the attacker’s shirt after being spun, the ball seemed to be going away from the striker, and Wolfsburg would have had cover to potentially block the shot. However, the referee clearly saw otherwise, and reduced the hosts to ten men and gave the visitors a free-kick in the D. Magath sought to waste time in the build-up to the set-piece by taking off Helmes for Marco Russ, but with the last kick of the half, Petsos’ right-footed effort sailed over Diego Benaglio’s bar.
Unsurprisingly, Jönsson didn’t return for the second half, with Mandžukić taking his place. The Croatian went onto the left of Wolfsburg’s 4-4-1, with Dejagah switching to the right. The ball was all the visitors’ at the start of the new half, with the home side sitting back. They occasionally pressed over the halfway line, with Josué and Träsch taking it in turns to sprint out and hurry Kaiserslautern’s distribution. Kurz’s side weren’t doing too much with the ball when it came to making forward passes, but this seemed to be the plan – constant floor-based channel-to-channel possession which ensured ball retention and kept the nine outfield players running and wearing themselves out.
Magath’s banks were as compact as could be, and thus, when a forward pass from the back did make its way through the green-shirted rearguard in the 52nd minute, there were so many bodies blocking a sprint through and onto it that neither of the Kaiserslautern attackers had the chance to respond. Wolfsburg used the restart from this wasted pass well, despite being pressed high and in great numbers by the visitors. This pressing eventually meant they had to go long, but Mandžukić timed a drop to perfection, held his man off superbly, and then played a brilliant cross-field pass for the undetected Patrick Ochs to gallop into the final-third with. The eventual ball into the box, surprise surprise, was poor, although Dejagah only had the very-physically man-marked Lakić to aim for.
Boasting the numerical personnel advantage, Kaiserslautern had the luxury of occasionally allowing a midfielder to join in the darting onto a ball over the top. However, Wolfsburg were beginning to edge their way back into the game, and although there was still a lack of creativity in the midfield, the likes of Josué and Schäfer used their experience and comfort on the ball to instigate a spell of ball possession in the opposition half on the hour mark, from which a canny Träsch eventually bought a foul after a driving run.
The extremely quiet Walch was replaced by Gil Vermouth one minute later, with Kurz looking to narrow his midfield and get his full-backs stretching their hosts. Thus, the Israeli midfielder was nominally positioned on the right side of midfield, although when the centre-backs had the ball, he joined in the infield bobbing and one-two’ing with Rodnei and Amedick, the aim being to release Florian Dick into acres of space.
However, it was the class of the ten men which told in the 63rd minute, when a great team move was finished off by Dejagah. In the shadow of the box joint, Schäfer headed to the feet of the back-to-goal facing Mandžukić, who was limited in his mobility because Amedick was on his back. Therefore, with the Wolfsburg winger seemingly going nowhere, Vermouth went to join his centre-back colleague in tackling him, leaving Schäfer to jog towards the box. However, this played into the Croatian’s hands, and his exquisite back-heel took both Kaiserslautern players out of the game. Schäfer now had time and space to pick out his pass, before opting to square across the six-yard-box for Dejagah’s back post slide-header. The Iranian might have been the one who turned it into the net, but Lakić must take a huge portion of the credit for the assist too. The centre-forward was initially on top of Trapp when Schäfer began assessing his options. However, it was his sudden leap back out of the six-yard box that dragged the centre-backs with him, opened up the corridor, and allowed the left-back to feed Dejagah for 1-0!
Mandžukić was proving unstoppable on the left flank, and he and Schäfer’s knowledge of where the other would be and execution of one-two moves was keeping Wolfsburg on top. Kouemaha and Shechter were nowhere near as effective as they had been in the first half, meaning that Kurz’s somewhat surprising decision to play a 4-4-2 was now back-firing. The problem for his two line-leaders was that compact Wolfsburg were an entirely different proposition to the space-leaving side willing to commit numbers to the attack in the first half.
As we approached the final ten minutes, Magath made his final change. It was a defensive-minded one, with goalscorer Dejagah going off – to a rapturous reception, as this was second goal in two games – for Hasan Salihamidžić. Two minutes later Kurz made a change too, replacing his left-back Leon Jessen with Kostas Fortounis. This was a very interesting substitution, as it was a direct response to Magath making a change on that flank. Christian Tiffert, string-puller and assist-maker, now came in off the wing, with Fortounis going out there. Although this left Kaiserslautern without a nominal left-back, there was less of a risk down that channel against the ten-man opposition now that Dejagah had gone off.
Kurz was right to think like that too, as all the danger was coming through Mandžukić – his dribbling, passing and hold-up play were simply the stuff of Magath’s dreams. He also played a superb volleyed-pass across the box from a free-kick in the 79th minute to Salihamidžić. Alas, despite the Bosnian turning the ball in, the goal was ruled out for a very narrow offside. Mandžukić continued to be vital to his side’s cause in the final five minutes, always there to carry the counter after away side attack after away side attack broke down. The 25-year-old Croatian would then skip by his opponents at ease, before wasting time in the Kaiserslautern half or stretching the Volkswagen Arena guests with an inch-perfect long-diagonal. His side rather easily held on for the three points in the end, and clinched their third victory of the season.